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Emergency response team improves university crisis preparedness

July 19, 2007
By Anita Martin

Well before the tragedy at Virginia Tech set universities nationwide into emergency planning mode, Ohio University was committed to preparing for critical situations. 

In an emergency

If you become aware of an emergency situation, immediately contact the Ohio University Police Department at 740-593-1911, even if the emergency does not seem to qualify as a police matter (a flood, for example).

At the most recent Board of Trustees meeting, David Hopka, assistant vice president for safety and risk management, and Jill Harris, emergency programs coordinator, outlined the university's ongoing efforts for emergency preparedness. First on their agenda was the university's Critical Incident Response Team.

About a year ago, Harris and Michael Martinsen, chief of the Ohio University Police Department, began assessing the university's level of preparedness and laying the groundwork for CIRT. Hopka came on board as the university's first assistant vice president for safety and risk management in fall 2006 and later took over as chair of CIRT, which officially formed in January.

"In my view, one cannot prepare for every type of emergency situation; the variables are just too great," Hopka said. "Instead, we're giving a core group of people a skill set and operating protocols applicable to a wide range of emergency situations." 

The core of CIRT consists of nine representatives, including Hopka, Martinsen and Harris, plus:

  • Executive director of communications and marketing (Joe Brennan)
  • Dean of students (Terry Hogan)
  • Environmental health and safety director (Lawrence Gingerich, interim director)
  • Associate vice president for facilities, university planning and implementation (John Kotowski)
  • Director of information technology business services and special projects (Duane Starkey)
  • Senior director of media relations (Sally Linder)

Primary members and their appointed back-ups meet regularly to explore potential problems, assess response needs, develop resources and undergo training. 

CIRT is poised to expand as needed to include officials involved in student health, residence life, dining services, housing and human resources, along with external agencies, including emergency reinforcement from neighboring communities.

The team has inventoried and prioritized available and planned communications tools, according to Hopka, including:

  • An emergency event notification system which, when fully operational, can send out mass text messages to cell phones. Students will submit their cell phone numbers on a voluntary basis using an online form. The system also can send recorded messages to the land phones and cell phones of critical groups ? such as CIRT members, the president and his executive staff, and Residence Life leadership, for example.
  • Cable emergency messaging. The university's CatVision can now take over every channel and relay emergency information to every television on campus that is on and connected to the system.
  • An emergency Web page that could replace the university Web site front door, carry vital information and handle high traffic.
  • A campus siren and public address broadcast system, which is in the investigation stage.
  • Code Red, a service of the county's 911 office, which can send a voice message to all land lines in any area or areas an authorized person designates.
  • Low- and no-tech solutions such as teams that would spread out to deliver messages in person or over hand-held public-address systems

"Our goal is to make sure that we have the right tools, the ability to deploy messages quickly, all the right people trained and plenty of redundancy so that no matter what an emergency hands us, we can get the word out," Linder said.

The Dean of Students' Office will review these initiatives with parents and students at Precollege and speak about the importance of personal preparedness.

Although the university has ramped up its critical incident planning recently, many individual units already had devised plans on their own. The university will bring those into greater cohesion - and expand preparedness across all units - with the help of a software tool called the Living Disaster Recovery Planning system.

"With thousands of people on campus, no one person or group can take responsibility for every one of them," Hopka said. "We need to encourage preparedness from everyone, so that they know how to respond on an individual level for different emergency situations."

Vice President for Outreach and Regional Campuses Charles Bird will meet with regional deans via video conference late this week to begin preparing individual response plans for each campus. 

"We all know that bad things can happen," Hopka said. "Whether it's as simple as a power failure or as serious as a flu pandemic, the time to plan is now."

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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